If there’s one person in contemporary progressive rock circles who needs no introduction, it’s Steven Wilson. Over the last thirty years he has slowly but surely carved out a successful career path and now stands as a solo artist with the genuine prospect of having tangible success. Of course, with this possibility comes the inevitable risk; broadening appeal may mean alienating those fans who helped build that success. Is Steven Wilson worried about this? Well, even a cursory listen to The Future Bites makes it clear that the answer is categorically ‘No’. This album is bold and defiant, and there is little room for compromise. Large portions of it are basically electronic dance music, a far cry from the ‘prog’ of The Raven Who Refused to Sing, or the guitar heavy rock of In Absentia.
Anyone who follows the artist will doubtless have checked out the videos to the songs which have been trailed on social media so far, such as Personal Shopper or Eminent Sleaze, so may have already made up their minds about the album and its direction. Personal Shopper is probably the album’s centrepiece, and certainly the longest track on offer, bouncing along with a Donna Summer dance beat. This is Steven Wilson though, so there’s an ominous edge as we explore the human obsession with consumerism and its effects on the way we think and act. There’s more than a hint of irony in the lyrics:
You’ve bought before a million times
Buy in green, buy in blue, buy in patterns ’cause I tell you to”
Objects of desire, read in deadpan style by Elton John, are linked with the supposed motivation to buy them:
Diamond cufflinks (self-expression)
Detox drinks (self obsession, self defence)”
The insistent electro-dance beat reinforces the all consuming message, as this piece covers the two main themes of the album – identity and technology. It is superficially upbeat, but always with that subversive twist as we are sucked into a world of unending buying of “the shit you never knew you lacked”. It might seem difficult for some fans, but there is the unmistakable Wilson darkness permeating proceedings, which I find perversely reassuring.
But let’s go back to the beginning. The Future Bites begins gently, with what sounds like an acoustic demo snatch of a song, Unself, which barely begins, then mirror image second track Self shatters all illusions in shocking fashion. In a stab at electronic pop, reminiscent of Bowie in the Eighties, we have three minutes of music most un-Wilson-like, hardly a ‘proper’ rock instrument to be discerned, and very catchy. But is it really un-Wilson-like? Actually, not really – it still has that dark side as it examines the cult of self amid clashing noise interjections. It’s pop, but it’s not comfortable or easy, and Wilson’s dispassionate delivery sets the tone for much that follows. A girlie chorus of “We are self, the self that loves itself now, doo doo doo do do”. You’re either going to love it or hate it, there’s no middle ground here.
King Ghost follows, and is one of the album’s stand out tracks, mesmeric and a thing of great beauty. It comes to life on a bass pulse with percussive embellishment, and tinkling electronic keyboard loops. The falsetto chorus makes the song, and if you’ve seen Jess Cope’s animated video, you’ll know how captivating this song is. What it’s about is frankly lost on me, it seems rather abstract, but it matters not a jot – it’s simply one of the best songs I’ve heard this year. 12 Things I Forgot follows, and is in much more familiar territory musically. It’s another lovely song inhabiting a similar sound world to Nowhere Now from the last album, To the Bone, or perhaps even Lazarus, and might appease some traditionalists who are feeling lost. There’s even a guitar on this one!
Eminent Sleaze breaks the reverie with handclaps and a dirty bassline, Wilson playing the slimy businessman with aplomb.
The closer I get to the dirt
The sharper the suit that I’m wearing”
The song turns into a sort of mid-tempo Floyd rocker, with female vocal backing; it could almost be an updated Money for the internet generation.
I say something funny, you give me all your money”
The guitar comes in clipped stabbing shards, and is used sparingly for maximum effect. It’s not the Wilson we are used to, but it’s undeniably classy. The insinuated Floyd connection continues on Man of the People, which floats in on echoey keyboards and gently strummed guitar, sounding rather like Sheep. Move along, nothing to fear here prog fans.
The penultimate track, Follower, is another up-tempo Bowie-esque rocker, and almost leaves the listener on a high with its social media commentary and sing-along chorus, but closer Count Of Unease brings things right down with a typically atmospheric final floating six minutes of other-worldly wonder, “always outside, always out of my mind” he breathes.
So there it is, a concise forty-minute album. Some of it shouldn’t be too indigestible for those of a delicate prog diet, but much is brave and more challenging. As a long-standing Steven Wilson listener, I doubt I’ll regard this as his finest work in years to come, but not every album can top the previous. What’s important is the journey, not what each stop on the way looks like. The Future Bites is an essential step on the evolutionary journey of an extraordinary talent. Great artists have always thrown us curve balls and refused to stand still, been reluctant to repeat former glories, and I have to say that the day Wilson panders to expectation is the day he’ll make a truly duff album. This certainly isn’t it, and there are moments that rank with his best achievements. And the beauty is that the next album will undoubtedly be completely different again. I’m confident most of us will still be listening.
01. Unself (1:05)
02. Self (2:56)
03. King Ghost (4:06)
04. 12 Things I Forgot (4:43)
05. Eminent Sleaze (3:53)
06. Man Of The People (4:42)
07. Personal Shopper (9:49)
08. Follower (4:39)
09. Count of Unease (6:08)
Total Time – 42:01
Steven Wilson – Vocals, Guitar, Bass, Keyboards, Percussion, Programming
David Kosten – Programming
Nick Beggs – Chapman Stick, Guitar, Percussion
Adam Holzman – Keyboards
Michael Spearman – Percussion
Jason Cooper – Percussion
Bobbie Gordon – Backing Vocals
Wendy Harriott – Backing Vocals
Crystal Williams – Backing Vocals
Elton John – Voice
London Session Orchestra – Strings
Guy Protheroe – Conductor
Record Label: Caroline International
Produced By: Steven Wilson & David Kosten
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 29th January 2021